The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

I am inspired by Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.”  In it, she writes about taking control of her life while she was on the tenure-track, rather than letting tenure control her.  If you have not read it yet, do so right now (you’re welcome) and then don’t forget to come back here!

There is some great reflection that I suspect will be useful to tenure-track academics with young children.  But, I feel the essay is missing other important contexts that are omnipresent in the stories of marginalized scholars: prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, harassment, double-standards, invisibility, hypervisibility, tokenism — just to name a few manifestations of oppression in academia.  There is a good chance Nagpal faced some of these realities herself, though not addressing them explicitly in her essay.  So, a great way to repackage her essay to scholars on the margins would be to infuse the experiences relayed in Presumed incompetent and the advice from The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul.

A 7-Year Experiment

Of course, as a brand new assistant professor, I do not have a story of the tenure-track without the stress (in the contexts of racism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression).  But, rather than telling my story after I receive tenure, I offer my story while pursuing tenure without the stress.

Consider this my 7-year experiment.  Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.  I will reflect on my experiences over the next seven years so that others may learn from my successes and failures.  Yes, I am putting myself on the line to test this hypothesis: can marginalized academics win tenure “without losing their souls”?

Starting Points

First, I should note that I feel relatively comfortable embarking on this experiment for the world to see because I accepted a position where the tenure requirements seem doable.  So, a first step toward pursuing a stress-free life on the tenure-track is placing achievable tenure expectations as a top priority for a job, rather than letting the school’s prestige dominate the list.  Yes, I do want to be challenged, and the expectations are high enough that I cannot do research or teach once in a blue moon.  But, I struggled with anxiety long enough to forgo signing up to be challenged at anxiety-provoking levels.

I can also tweak Nagpal’s own guidelines to fit with my journey toward tenure without losing my soul:

  1. I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  2. I stopped taking advice.
  3. I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  6. I found real friends.
  7. I have fun “now”.

1 — I printed out a similar little note that says “This is a 7-year postdoc.”  But, I am inclined to see this more as “I am a professor at this university for at least 7 years.”  This is my reward for six difficult years in graduate school, plus four years in college.  My time in graduate school entailed many instances of remaining silent, or censored, or deferential — even when I saw injustices or was the target of a microaggression myself.  I learned to present myself, my work, and my perspective in “safe”, apolitical, and mainstream ways to get ahead.  Why be silent, censored, and subservient for another seven years?  I worked hard for my freedom (the PhD), and I have my “papers” to prove it.  My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.

2 — “I stopped taking advice,” especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations, or, at a minimum, clearly do not have my best interests (as a whole person) in mind.  Upon hearing the awful, and sometimes oppressive advice throughout graduate school (“remind them that you’re Black,” “man up!”, “a little bit of anxiety is good for you”), I have learned the hard lesson that there is a lot of advice that is thrown around, and most of it speaks to privileged scholars’ experiences (if it is based in truth at all).  The most helpful sources of advice as I progressed through the difficult year of job market and dissertating were my partner, my family, my friends, and my own heart, mind, and spirit.  My career will never mirror that of another person, so I have to do a better job of listening to that internal adviser.

3 — I acknowledge the institutionally valued markers of success (i.e., publication, grants, student evaluations, awards), but I will stop ignoring other signs of being loved, valued, and respected.  I have been collecting nice notes from friends and family in a Word document.  After attending the American Sociological Association annual meeting this weekend, I realized that I should better appreciate how many people value this blog.  (I heard from a dozen people, “I love your blog!”, but only once heard “I’m familiar with your research.)  This includes allowing being valued to work both up (i.e., from senior and higher-status scholars) and down (i.e., from younger and lower-status scholars), for chasing the attention of overburdened “stars” in my subfields places too much of my self-worth in the hands of people I must convince to notice me.

4 — I will continue working weekdays during reasonable work hours (sometimes 8am-6pm), as I have been doing since the second to last year of my graduate training.  Labor rights activists worked too hard to block off Saturday and Sunday as days off from work for me to relinquish the weekend.  That, and my salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, so I would rather save time in which I am volunteering for community service rather than to academic service.  I learned that I ultimately become too tired to work, and trying to do so every day left me unproductive and riddled with guilt and anxiety for not working.

Me - Rock Star5 — I must be a whole person.  This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation.  As a student, and even as new professor, I find it incredibly reassuring to see advisers as whole people — people who have families, laugh, cry, dress up and dress down, drink, etc.  I can stop using a professional-looking photo as my profile picture on Facebook.  I will not fall into “shop talk” outside of the office with colleagues who are also friends.  I owe it to myself, my partner, and my friends and family to be something more than the one-dimension of scholar.

6 — I will work at finding “real” friends, which may include my colleagues, but should include non-academics, as well.

7 — I will start having fun now because my health depends on it, and tomorrow is not promised to me.  It seems odd to me to work so hard for 6-10 years for a PhD, to then work even harder for another seven — all in the name of the job security we assume non-academics are not promised.

Status Or Happiness?  I’m Choosing Both

Inherent in this experiment, as well as Napgal’s post, is the assumed contradiction between status and happiness.  I have reflected in personal writing on these two paths as a series of major and minor crossroads throughout my life as a marginalized scholar:

These crossroads are just one aspect of the larger decision I face: do I choose status, or do I choose happiness?  In some ways, I have already made decisions toward both ends.  Unknowingly, I chose a top-ranked PhD program; I liked the feel, and assumed I would have support for my work in sexualities.  But, I took a liberal arts position close to my family, forgoing a longer stay in graduate school to increase my marketability (to research intensive schools).  My work took on a mainstream approach, while pushing the envelope.  I present myself in normative ways, but make no secret of my politics, views, and experiences.

I was reminded of the importance of reflective writing.  Immediately after I wrote the previous paragraph (yesterday, on my flight back from the ASA conference), I wrote the following:

The more I reflect on this, I realize I am actually on neither path.  I have not selected the “easy” route, completely relinquishing hope for status or prestige.  But, I also have not completely sold my soul for the status-driven route.  By bouncing back and forth between the two routes, I am actually on my own path.  And, it is my hope of hopes that I actually pave a new path, that my footsteps are making visible a new route for others.  With a commitment to paving the way, I must be open and honest with others about my successes and missteps.  My tale may even be a cautionary one for others behind me.  I must tell my story and live openly for the purview of others like me!

That is, it was this personal reflection that sparked the idea for this post.  I have done some digging to find out about other scholars before me who pursued alternative paths, for these individuals were either invisible in my graduate training or the more radical aspects of their lives were stripped away.  For example, though sociologists are slowly beginning to recognize the work of W. E. B. DuBois, we never talk about his work with NAACP, his experiences of racist discrimination, or anything other than his published works.  This, in my opinion, speaks back to being a whole person, even for other academics.  I would love to hear, “wow, I liked your article in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and omg, your blog is amazing!”

Tenure

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.  I chose not to stress about tenure, working on projects that meet my goals of social justice and accessibility at my own pace.  I will focus on “connecting up”, forging connections with senior scholars and the “big names” in my field, as well as “connecting down” by making genuine efforts to connect with my peers and younger scholars and students.  I will give occasional updates, and, in the end, report back on the findings of this 7-year experiment.  Wish me luck!

13 thoughts on “The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

  1. I love this list–I’ve also been thinking a lot about tenure, the academy and my own path. And my post-ASA reflection echoes some of your concerns regarding establishing your presence, being productive, and not biting your tongue. I really appreciated this reflection! Best wishes to you!

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  2. I love this list too. And having survived that 7-year period with great damage to my soul, I am cheering you on with all my heart. But what I found was that the worst offenses happened within the grey areas of your list:
    –I couldn’t do all the parts of my job in 40 hours unless I did large parts of it very badly.
    –I found myself stymied by tiny little acts of aggression or discrimination from colleagues I otherwise liked and trusted, and couldn’t muster effective responses because I feared they would no longer be trustworthy.
    –Some colleagues’ modes of being collegial is to offer advice. And they really, really want you to take it.
    –I learned that my behavior and research had to be top-notch if I wanted to get a job *after* that 7 year period, especially in today’s crazy market.
    –I found myself spending so much money on non-reimbursed professional research or conferences that it was hard to have much left over for fun and travel.
    –After 5 years at my job, I’d reconciled myself to a lot of the bulls**t and had grown to really like it there; I even owned a house. It made the tenure process even crazier because I truly wanted to stay.

    So I guess this is all to say that this philosophy is absolutely to be commended. But don’t kick yourself when you’re working 65 hrs a week, wrapped up in knots by a colleague’s treatment of you, and unable to remain philosophical about the job. That’s what ultimately helped me adjust to my life on the tenure track, and also to keep from drinking the kool-aid. (Oh yeah, AND those non-academic friends! And therapy!)

    best of luck!

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    • Oh, these are excellent points. Even just halfway through my first semester, I am seeing myself struggle with some of these. I’d be glad to have you write a guest post if you’re interested — in this vein, or other matters.

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  3. Reblogged this on Datapulted and commented:
    Here’s a great post about scholarly identity. It reminds me of a moment I had after visiting Glide Church in San Francisco this year during AERA. We need to listen to and understand the melody within ourselves; only then can we put it out in song. That’s how we join the chorus of scholars, creating tension or creating harmony.

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